19 November 2008

Ur-story: Ur-realism

In the 45th Anniversary Issue of the New York Review of Books (Vol. LV, No. 18), dated Nov. 20,2008, Zadie Smith contrasts two recent novels, Netherland by Joseph O'Neill and Remainder by Tom McCarthy, as "antipodal—indeed one is the strong refusal of the other." Smith claims Netherland is a perfect flowering of a played-out form she terms "lyrical realism" (itself presumably antipodal to the "hysterical realism" tag which James Wood pinned to Smith and others (Wallace, Foer, etc.) whom he claimed "know[] a thousand things but do[] not know a single human being."). Remainder, on the other hand, attempts to point the way forward for the novel.

We reviewed O'Neill's book here, taking a different tack than Wood's laudatory New Yorker review. Where Smith objects to the 'realism' aspect of the equation, we found O'Neill's lyricism wanting. The narrative, the writing itself, felt distant, alienated, and disembodied—as opposed to the novel's main character for whom those adjectives more appropriately fit. It felt like a failure of the free indirect style. The writer did not get in close enough. We'll not repeat our argument here.

We did not review McCarthy's remarkable book when we first read it because we wanted to read it again after some time had passed. Its aftertaste lingered and we wanted to savor it, not jinx the experience by commenting on (or misreading) it—notwithstanding that misreading is often the father of invention. Remainder is quite unlike any novel we've read before or since, though it has Beckettian overtones and some of George Saunders approaches it. Two events, though, have brought it back to the forefront: Smith's important article and Charlie Kaufman's enigmatic new film Synecdoche, New York (in which, we should add, there is nary a quantum of solace).

Both Remainder and Synecdoche, New York begin with a blow to the head: the unnamed protagonist in Remainder has an experience somewhat like Donny Darko, though less drastically fantastical; Synecdoche, New York's Caden Cotard is struck by an exploding faucet. Both are pieces of broken humanity. If Caden was an automobile, you'd have returned him long ago under prevailing Lemon Laws; everything goes wrong with him: stool, pupils, urine, skin, leg, salivary glands, tear ducts, autonomous bodily funtions, psyche, and on and on seriatim as the world likewise collapses around him. The only time he can authentically cry is before, during, and/or after sex. As for McCarthy's protagonist, after he comes out of his coma and his bones are repaired he has to relearn and reconstruct all his basic motor functions:
"To cut and lay new circuits, what they do is make you visualize things. Simple things, like lifting a carrot to your mouth. For the first week or so they don't give you a carrot, or even make you try to move your hand at all: they just ask you to visualize taking a carrot in your right hand, wrapping your fingers round it and then levering your whole forearm upwards from the elbow until the carrot reaches your mouth. ... But the act itself, when you actually come to try it, turns out to be more complicated than you thought. There are twenty-seven separate manoeuvres involved. You've learnt them, one by one, in the right order, understood how they all work, run through them in your mind, again and again and again for a whole week—lifted more than a thousand imaginary carrots to your mouth, or one imaginary carrot more than a thousand times, which amounts to the same thing. But then you take a carrot—they bring you a fucking carrot, gnarled, dirty and irregular in ways your imaginary carrot never was, and they stick it in your hands—and you know, you just know as soon as you see the bastard thing that it's not going to work.

'Go for it,' said the physiotherapist. He laid the carrot on my lap, then moved back from me slowly, as though I were a house of cards, and sat down facing me.

Before I could lift it I had to get my hand to it. I swung my palm and fingers upwards from the wrist, but then to bring the whole hand towards where the carrot was I'd have to slide the elbow forwards, pushing from the shoulder, something I hadn't learnt or practised yet. I had no idea how to do it. In the end I grabbed my forearm with my left hand and just yanked it forwards.

"That's cheating," said the physio, "but okay. Try to lift the carrot now."

I closed my fingers round the carrot. It felt—well it felt: that was enough to start short-circuiting the operation. It had texture; it had mass. The whole week I'd been gearing up to lift it, I'd thought of my hand, my fingers, my rerouted brain as active agents, and the carrot as a no-thing—a hollow, a carved space for me to grasp and move. This carrot, though, was more active than me: the way it bumped and wrinkled, how it crawled with grit. It was cold. I grasped it and went into Phase Two, the hoist, but even as I did I felt the surge of active carrot input scrambling the communication between brain and arm, firing off false contractions, locking muscles at the very moment it was vital they relax and expand, twisting fulcral joints the wrong directions. As the carrot rolled, slipped and plummeted away I understood how air traffic controllers must feel in the instant when they know a plane is just about to crash, and that they can do nothing to prevent it. ...

It took another week to get it right. We went back to the blackboard, factoring in the surplus signals we'd not factored in before, then back through visualization, then back to a real carrot again. I hate carrots. I still can't eat them to this day."
Reality proves formidable, recalcitrant. The human relation to it is never simple. Our consciousness is continually being surprised. Thus, realism is never accurate nor can it ever be quite true: this is a respectable metaphysical point (start, e.g., with Rorty and progress to Dummett). Yet nothing we've encountered in recent fiction has struck us as being quite as close to being truly realistic as this passage, where, by 'realistic', we mean as close to giving us an accurate picture of the elusive point of contact between the conscious human psyche and the external world of objects as mediated by the broken human body. We can argue over the nature of realism in literature, and its various types, until the cows come home, but this, my friends, is the real deal. Let us call it 'Ur-realism'. From this point on we have been written in to the reality of this particular character.

Caden, too, seems to be losing everything. His wife, Adele Lack, an artist, leaves him and becomes an internationally famous artist specializing in miniatures. She takes their daughter, Olive, with her. Caden is disconsolate and can find no pleasure in life. He drifts, progressively losing any sense of time and reality (as does the film).

Both men then come into an unexpected bounty: Caden, a local theater director, is awarded the MacArthur "genius" grant; the protagonist of Remainder is awarded a settlement of eight and a half million pounds on the proviso that he never "discuss, in any public or recordable format, the nature and/or details of the incident."

The key words here are 'public or recordable format.' Why? Follow the logic: something falls from the sky causing him to become (hyper-)conscious of himself and his mortality. As a result he receives an unexpected bounty which he spends attempting to recreate certain moments of his life until, at the end, he ends up in an airplane flying figure eights in the sky waiting for it to run out of fuel and—what?—fall from the sky! McCarthy seems to be implying that language can never recapitulate consciousness. Can never capture what it means to be alive. And that everything we do—our institutions, our art—is merely an attempt to recover that spark... But I jump ahead.

Both protagonists, then, spend their new-found monies attempting to re-enact moments from their lives, Caden in a professional theatrical format, Remainder's protagonist in a setting he must create from scratch. [more to follow]

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